Salvaging a Crashed F-14 Tomcat

An F-14D Tomcat from the USS John C. Stennis was salvaged on May 7-8, 2004 after crashing off the coast of Point Loma, California. You can read the details of the crash here, but the BLUF is that the aircraft suffered a mechanical malfunction and attempted to divert to Naval Station North Island but failed to make land. The crew successfully bailed out and was treated at a local hospital before being released back to their unit. The U.S. Navy’s deep submergence unit was tasked with recovering the crashed F-14D Tomcat.

On May 8, 2004, the U.S. Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit salvaged the fuselage section of a crashed F-14D Tomcat from the Pacific Ocean off California. The air frame came up in several pieces but the bulk of the aircraft was recovered. U.S. Navy Photo

When a military aircraft crashes, it will be recovered if it can be recovered. Land based crashes are more common and easier to recover as personnel can walk the scene and sweep the area for parts. This was exemplified in 2007 when a U.S. Navy Blue Angles’ pilot lost orientation and was killed during an air show at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. The Department of Defense was tasked with recovering what remained of the F-18 Hornet which broke up over a residential neighborhood and destroyed several homes. Over a period of several weeks, the bulk of the air frame was recovered and removed.

Most water crashes occur with U.S. Navy aircraft and usually one of three options are exercised when an aircraft is lost at sea. Option one is to salvage the aircraft, two is to destroy the aircraft, or if both those fail, three is to abandon the aircraft in place. Abandoning an aircraft is a measure of last resort and usually only reserved for when the aircraft is lost in extremely deep water. If the aircraft is carrying classified or sensitive equipment or information, the Navy will attempt to destroy an aircraft in situ to prevent any release of that information. There is precedent of the Navy going to great lengths to destroy lost aircraft all the way back to the 1950’s when explosives were used to demolish a lost B-36 Peacemaker bomber off the coast of California. The Department of Defense is always fearful of a foreign entity gaining access to a lost aircraft though and will salvage the aircraft if it can.

The U.S. Navy’s Super Scorpio remote operated vehicle. U.S. Navy photo

A deep sea recovery is difficult and expensive, but the U.S. Navy can operate at extreme depths with the Deep Submergence Unit. The Deep Submergence Unit’s primary mission is submarine rescue operations but with a lack of lost submarines, the Deep Submergence Unit maintains its proficiency by carrying out deep water operations such as salvaging lost naval aircraft. By May 2008, the Deep Submergence Unit was off the coast of California and deployed their Super Scorpio remote operable vehicle (ROV) on the F-14d tomcat wreck site. The ROV was used to attach recovery cables to the largest portions of the F-14 and it was pulled up in multiple pieces. While the F-14 Tomcat could not be restored to flying status, the salvage removed the possibility that elements of the air frame could be evaluated or recovered by a foreign entity.

The recovered tail section of the lost F-14D Tomcat sitting on the deck of the salvage ship. U.S. Navy Photo

Improvised and Expendable, the Independence-Class Light Carriers

Discovery of the sunken wreck of the World War II light carrier, USS Independence (CV-22), off the coast of California has sparked a fair amount of excitement. You can read the details here, but the BLUF is that the USS Independence was scuttled off the coast of California after being used as a target for a nuclear weapons blast during Operation Crossroads in 1946. The survey was a joint venture by NOAA and Boeing to map shipwrecks located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The USS Independence was the lead ship and namesake of the Independence-class light carriers, a rushed but effective class of aircraft carriers built for the U.S. Navy in the early days of the war.  These ships provided invaluable service during World War II but were obsolete by 1945.

NOAA and Boeing teamed to test a new sonar system called "Echo Ranger" to survey the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The resulting imagery of the wreck of the USS. Independence has revealed the wreck in detail. NOAA and Boeing photo

NOAA and Boeing teamed to test a new sonar system called “Echo Ranger” to survey the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The resulting imagery of the wreck of the USS Independence CV-22 has revealed the wreck in detail. NOAA and Boeing photo

As war loomed in early 1941, the U.S. Navy looked for a quick way to acquire aircraft carriers. 52 ships of the Cleveland-class light cruisers had been planned and many of them were already under construction. The U.S. Navy ordered that 9 of the cruiser hulls be converted into light carriers by adding a flight deck over a hanger with a small island. Blisters were added to the hull to compensate for the top weight but the cruiser hulls remained fast with a top speed of almost 32 knots and could keep up with the fleet carriers. The small size of the Independence-class ships meant they could only carry 30 aircraft but when the USS Independence was delivered for service in January 1943, the U.S. Navy had been reduced to only two fleet carriers left in the pacific theater, the overworked USS Enterprise CV-6 that was due for an extensive overhaul and the aging USS Saratoga CV-3.

The Independence-class ships arrived during a critical time in the Pacific war and were immediately put to work. The USS Independence was paired with the newly arrived Essex-class carriers USS Essex and USS Yorktown and for much of 1943 conducted hit and run raids to deplete Japanese airpower throughout the pacific. The second ship of the class, USS Princeton arrived in February 1943 and was paired with the elderly USS Saratoga to carry out a devastating raid on Rabaul Harbor that neutralized the threat of a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron. All nine ships were delivered to the U.S. Navy before the end of 1943 compared to only two Essex-class carriers. The 270 aircraft that these small carriers could field between them saw the U.S. Navy through to 1944 when the Essex-class carriers arrived in bulk.

USS Princeton underway and preparing for combat operations in May 1943. U.S. Navy Photo

During 1944, the air war in the Pacific intensified and the Independence-class carriers switched from a strike role to a support role as they were equipped predominately with fighters and a small amount of torpedo bombers. The USS Princeton became the only casualty of the class after being hit by a single Japanese bomb. The damage was minor but the bomb sparked a fire that burned out of control. This revealed a fatal flaw of the class in that unlike the Essex-class carriers, the Independence-class carriers lacked the internal protection for munitions and fuel that was essential for survival in a combat zone. The trade off for a fast conversion was that the Independence-class had almost no armor over the magazines and in many cases, munitions were stored in unprotected spaces and aviation fuel pipes were routed through corridors to the flight deck.

The Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Birmingham coming alongside USS Princeton to assist with damage control efforts after the carrier had been hit by a single bomb. In this picture, you can see the identical hull between the two ships. An explosion aboard the USS Princeton soon after this photo was taken would kill more than 200 sailors aboard the USS Birmingham and caused damage so severe that the USS Birmingham had to return to the United States for repairs. The USS Princeton was scuttled after it was realized the fires on board could not be brought under control. U.S. Navy Photo

After the war, the remaining 8 Independence-class carriers were declared surplus to the needs of the U.S. Navy and were decommissioned. Some were scrapped and others were gifted to other nations. The USS Cabot became the longest living of the class and served with the Spanish navy as the DeDalo until 1989 before being returned to the U.S. Navy in close to her original World War II configuration. An effort to preserve the USS Cabot was started but ultimately failed. The USS Cabot made her final voyage to Brownsville, Texas in 2002 for scrapping. The ship was stripped of many of her original anti-aircraft guns and fittings which went to other museum ships to help preserve them. Today, only the wrecks of the USS Independence and USS Princeton remain of the class.

Up until 2002, the USS Cabot could have been preserved as a museum but no home was ever found for the ship. Here, Spanish AV-8 Harriers fly past the Cabot in Spanish service. National Archives Photo

Visiting the USS Maine around Washington D.C.

The sinking of the USS Maine has been a highly controversial issue that is still debated to this day. You can read the history here, but the BLUF is that USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba on February 15, 1898 under dubious circumstances. Spain, who was in charge of Cuba at the time claimed the USS Maine sank as the result of a coal bunker fire that caused an explosion. The U.S. Navy and the American media claimed the USS Maine was sunk by a Spanish mine. In the end, the cause didn’t matter as the result was the 1898 Spanish American war that saw the Spanish military destroyed and America launched on its path to becoming the superpower. After the war, the USS Maine was raised, most of the crew recovered, and the hulk was towed to sea and sunk with full military honors. There was an outpouring of sympathy across the United States for the sailors who lost their lives which resulted in a large amount of material from the Maine being preserved around the Washington D.C. Metro area.

The wreckage of the USS Maine (ACR-1) in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The sinking of the USS Maine would spark the Spanish American War. National Archives Photo 301647

The USS Maine (ACR-1) was a new type of armored warships designed to match cruisers that were being built in countries such as England, France, Italy, Spain, and being sold to America’s geopolitical rivals such as Brazil. For the United States, The USS Maine was first in a line of ships that would eventually lead to building true battleships as we know them today. The USS Maine’s design was a balancing the hull with two massive armored turrets that sat off center on the fore and aft parts of the ship. This design limited the guns arc of fire and rapidly led to the USS Maine becoming obsolete as armored warships became faster and better armed. While the USS Maine was no longer a first rate warship by 1898, it was still a formidable vessel that could show the flag when the interests of the United States were at issue. It was in this capacity that the USS Maine visited Havana harbor as a full scale Cuban uprising was underway against Spanish rule. The visit was a routine trip for the USS Maine but fate intervened.

 

The USS Maine entering Havana Harbor. U.S. Navy Photo via wikipedia

After the Maine had been raised, a large amount of material from the wreck made its way to the Washington Navy Yard. There were requests from around the United States for pieces of the Maine to be donated by the U.S. Navy to become memorials. An event of this magnitude had never happened to the United States during peace time.

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Within a few years, the bulk of the material that had been sent to the Washington Navy yard had been transferred to various municipalities or disposed of. What was left though is still on display at the small museum that can be found along the Washington Navy Yard’s waterfront. The main piece is one of the USS Maine’s 6-inch secondary guns that now has a healthy amount of rust. Close by is a brass blade from one of the USS Maine’s spare propellers that is engraved with the USS Maine’s name. The Museum, which bills itself as the “National Museum of the Navy,” is small and only open to visitors who hold a valid DoD ID or their guests who travel with them.

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This 6-Inch secondary gun recovered from the wreck of the USS Maine is now on display at the Washington Navy yard.

 

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The crew of the USS Maine, after being interned and disinterred at various cemeteries, eventually made their way to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia which is just across the Potomac River from Washington DC. This is by far the largest memorial to the U.S.S. Maine which uses the USS Maine’s undamaged mast as the centerpiece for the crew’s burial plot.

The USS Maine’s undamaged mast now acts as a monument to the crew at Arlington National Cemetery. National Archives Photo 6491198

Arlington National Cemetery should be on your list of places to visit on any trip to Washington DC. There is a lot to see there, but it’s worth the walk over to see the Maine’s mast and to pay your respects to the crew. While most of the USS Maine’s crew was recovered from the wreckage, the bulk was never identified as too much time passed between the sinking and when the remains were recovered. Eventually, it may be possible to identify individual crew members through DNA analysis, but for the moment, most rest in mass graves.

A tombstone for some of the crew of the USS Maine ACR-1, Arlington National Cemetery. National Archives Photo 6443307

The next big place to visit for material from the Maine is the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. This is about a 45 minute drive from Washington D.C. and is a fascinating day trip. It is also the location of the USS Maine’s damaged fore mast. This has led to a joke in the Navy that the USS Maine is the longest ship in the Navy as it’s fore and aft masts sit in different cities. The mast is included in the public tours that are offered almost daily during the summer months and then on a limited schedule during colder months. There is a fee for the public tours but it is worth the price of admission.

 

In this photo of the USS Maine as it is being raised, both of it’s masts can be seen. The closest and least damaged would go to Arlington National Cemetery. The mast further back and leaning would be repaired and go to the U.S. Naval Academy. U.S. Navy Photo via Wikipedia.

While outside the Washington D.C. metro area, there is a massive memorial to the USS Maine in Columbus Circle in New York City, New York. Most people have seen the memorial in various movies but never knew it was dedicated to the USS Maine. The back story claims that the statues were cast from bronze taken from the Maine’s guns while the plaques were made from metal from the ship’s hull. While New York City is a few hours from Washington D.C., it is worth the cab ride or metro fare to see the memorial if you are in the city.

The USS Maine memorial in New York City. Photo via wikipedia

Update: Russian Mistral-Class Amphibious Assault Ships

The soap opera over two French built Mistral-class Amphibious Assault Ships for Russia continues into another year. As previously written here, the French government halted delivery of both vessels after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. France has been given the option by Russia of delivering both vessels or returning Russia’s payment plus penalties provided for in their contract. As the deal came close to 1.5 billion U.S. Dollars with potential penalties of $311 million if the ships are not delivered, neither option is particularly good for France. Russia seems to have acknowledged that the vessels will not be delivered and has retrieved its sailors and marines from France who had been training to take possession of the Mistral vessels

The International Business times has written that Russia is likely waiting to take legal action due to a clause in the contract that allows France to postpone delivery of the vessels for three months which will expire in February 2015.  The Ottawa Times has reported that during this time, Russia has formally asked France for a written explanation as to why it has not complied with the contract between the two countries. France is unlikely to respond to that request as any written document it produces will immediately become evidence against them in a potential lawsuit. The Canadian media has been closely following this story as Canada is the likely destination of the ships if they are not delivered to Russia.

The lead ship of the class, the French warship Mistral, sits framed behind an L-CAT ship to shore connector during exercises. This is a capability that Russia hoped to gain through acquisition of the Mistral-class warships. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. Naval Institute wrote that the France is open to delivering both ships, if Russia agrees to implement the Minsk Accords which would layout out a formal ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine and return much of the territory seized. It has been a given that Russia is unlikely to implement the accords and even if they did, there would be enormous pressure from NATO to keep the ships out of Russian hands. But with the sudden collapse of oil prices, Russia may be looking for a quick exit out of the Ukraine to get sanctions lifted against the country. An unexpected implementation of the accords would put France in a situation where it had to choose between Russia or NATO and the only sure outcome is that someone is going to be very upset.

The aging Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, here framed by the USS Farragut (DDG 99) during a goodwill visit, remains the only capital ship left in the Russian Navy. The Admiral Kuznetsov is not allowed to leave port unless it is in the company of a repair vessel and tugboat as it has broken down numerous times in recent years. This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that the ship’s engines and machinery were manufactured in the Ukraine and the current conflict has prevented Russia from obtaining spare parts. Unless the Mistral-class ships are delivered, Russia may find itself without a capital ship in its navy for the first time in centuries. U.S. Navy photo

Japan’s Last Aircraft Carrier, IJN Katsuragi

By October 1945, the IJN Katsuragi was Japan’s last aircraft carrier in service. Instead of an illustrious career as a warship, the Katsuragi was used to demobilize the armed forces of the Empire of Japan on islands bypassed by U.S. forces during the war. You can read the history here, but the BLUF is that at the end of World War II, the bulk of the Imperial Japanese navy was either sunk or inoperable. Out of what was once one of the largest fleets in the world, only 114 ships ranging in size from a tug boats to aircraft carriers were left in operable condition to repatriate demobilized Japanese forces back to the mainland. The aircraft carrier Katsuragi was the largest vessel available for this task and became the last Japanese aircraft carrier to see active service.

The IJN Katsuragi was an Unryu-class aircraft carrier that was completed at the tail end of World War II. The Unryu-class was an emergency development of an easy to build fleet carrier in response to the losses the Japanese Navy suffered at Midway. These ships would have no underwater protection and were given extra deck space to permanently store planes that couldn’t fit in the hanger. They were ships designed to get the most planes to the battle zone and Japans only attempt at mass producing an aircraft carrier. The class was to number 16 vessels but only three were completed before the war ended.

An aerial U.S. Navy photo of Kure Harbor. The aircraft carrier that is afloat at the top of the picture is the Katsuragi. The shadow cast across her deck is not from her island but from an elevator that has been blown upward by a bomb blast. The half sunken carrier at the bottom of the photo is the Amagi. Neither of these ships were combat ready and were likely anchored close to the naval depot to serve anti aircraft batteries.

By the time Katsuragi was completed, there were no air units to equip her and no fuel for her to leave Kure harbor. It was there that she and her sister ship Amagi (second Japanese carrier to be named this during the war) could do little more than act as anti-aircraft platforms. Katsuragi was hit by a 2,000 pound bomb that buckled her flight deck while her sister ship Amagi sank and partially capsized. When japan surrendered, Katsuragi was heavily damaged, but afloat and operable. The U.S. navy directed that the Katsuragi be taken in hand and given emergency repairs to make the hanger weather proof. While most Japanese crews were demobilized, a portion of Katsuragi’s crew was retained and the ship was commanded by her original war time Captain.

The repairs to Katsuragi were not extensive but enough to enable the ship to carry 5000 repatriated Japanese soldiers per a voyage. Over the next year, Katsuragi and her crew would make voyage across the Pacific to retrieve Japanese garrisons from places like Rabaul, Palau, Java, and Borneo. Her longest trip was to Australia to recover Japanese prisoners of war that were held there. There is a note on the Katsuragi’s Wikipedia page that the ship made 8 voyages and repatriated 49,390 Japanese, but there is no source for this number. Regardless, Katsuragi was the largest ship available for this task and carried out the brunt of the early repatriation effort.

The IJN Katsuragi was laid up by the end of 1946 and scrapped in 1947. When she passed from service, Japan was left without a functioning aircraft carrier for the next six decades. (Technical note, Japan claims its modern aircraft carriers are actually “Helicopter Destroyers…”

Pearl Harbor Survivor, the Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat

It’s been 73 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, but at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center, a Pearl Harbor survivor Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat is undergoing restoration. You can read the back story here, but the BLUF is that a squadron of Sikorsky JRS-1’s was present at Pearl Harbor the day of the attack, and the survivors were some of the first aircraft to fly combat air patrol in search of the Japanese fleet. The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat was the 13th JRS-1 built for the U.S. Navy and today is the only aircraft in the Smithsonian’s collection that was present during the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. It is now undergoing restoration at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar located at the Dulles Airport. There is an observation deck inside the Udvar-Hazy Center that allows visitors to look down at the Sikorsky JRS-1 as work is being done.

The Smithsonian's Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat has been undergoing restoration for more than a year.

The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat has been undergoing restoration for more than a year.

The Sikorsky JRS-1 was a militarized version of Sikorsky’s successful S-43 flying boat that was built for commercial airline service. The S-43 amphibian was so popular that none other than Howard Hughes purchased one. The JRS-1 gave good service in the early years of World War II flying antisubmarine missions. The JRS-1 was not outfitted to carry munitions but with minor alterations, the flying boat was able to carry depth charges. The life of the JRS-1 was short though and by 1944, most were passed out of service in favor of the similar looking but much more capable PBY Catalina flying boat.

The Smithsonian’s Sikorsky JRS-1 undergoing restoration. Smithsonian Photo.

The Skiorsky JRS-1 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was out of service by 1944 and saw a brief second life as a test aircraft for NASA. In this role, the JRS-1 was outfitted with an array of instruments and antenna for monitoring NASA experiments. The aircraft was retired from government service and sold to a commercial carrier before passing through a number of owners before coming into the possession of the Smithsonian in 1960. Instead of being restored and put on display, the Sikorsky JRS-1 was put into storage, where it remained for the next five decades. The Smithsonian has the only JRS-1 known to have been at Pearl Harbor. It’s not the only surviving model though, Fantasy of Flight in Florida has obtained Howard Hughes’ S-43 and is restoring the aircraft to flying condition.

This aircraft is possibly the Smithsonian’s JRS-1 in NASA service. NASA Photo

The restoration of the Smithsonian’s Pearl Harbor Sikorsky JRS-1 is ongoing and will take many more man hours to complete. The JRS-1 should be ready for display by Pearl Harbors 75th anniversary which will be a big event at the Udvar-Hazy Center. If you happen to be in the Washington D.C. area, this would defiantly be worth a trip as the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center is hands down the best of all the Smithsonian museums, and now, you can see a true Pearl Harbor survivor on display.

A French Soap Opera, What Will Happen to the Russian Mistral-Class Carriers?

France has halted the transfer of a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to Russia in what is starting to look like a legal soap opera. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that France and Russia signed a deal for the construction of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to be built for the Russian Navy. After the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the international community imposed an arms embargo on Russia that should have stopped the transfer. Despite this, France and Russia had a contract and France was set to deliver the first ship in mid-November 2014 when the New York Times picked up the story and brought renewed pressure from the international community. France stopped the transfer and has now missed the deadline for delivering the first ship, putting France in breach of a $1.6 billion contract that it now stands to pay heavy penalties for.

The French amphibious assault ship Mistral, lead ship of her class, is guided into Norfolk Harbor in 2012 for joint operations with the United States Navy and Marine Corps. U.S. Navy Photo

The French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship is an ultra-modern aircraft carrier type vessel with a well deck for launching landing craft. It’s similar in function to the United States Wasp-class vessels but with a reduced cargo capacity and greater emphasis on air operations. France has been operating the vessels with great success, even participating in joint training operations with the United States Marines. This success prompted France to offer the Mistral-class for export in 2007 with the ships promoted as easy to operate vessels for nations that lacked experience with carrier operations. Interest came from places like Canada, Poland, and India, but the entire naval world was surprised when Russia ordered two ships from France in 2010 and two more to be built in Russia with French assistance for a total of four ships.

The Mistral-class ships are designed to operate American built landing craft, air cushion (LCAC) hovercraft for quick delivery of Marines from ship to shore. U.S. Navy photo

Russia has a proud naval tradition that has never fully recovered after the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. The Russian Navy enjoyed a brief renaissance during the cold war but it has seen its best ships mothballed or scrapped after years of neglect. Russia still has a formidable navy but most of it’s ships are 40-years old and it only has one aircraft carrier left in service. Acquiring a modern ship design from France was a way to fast track Vladimir Putin’s program of rebuilding the Russian military back to its Cold War status. The Mistral-class ships would give Russia a modern amphibious capacity and the opportunity for their engineers to gain experience that could be used in future indigenous designs, even if that experience came at a hefty cost.

The last Russian aircraft carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was ordered in 1981 but not completed until 1990 due to financial restraints. The Admiral Kuznetsov has been plagued by mechanical problems and was an embarrassment to the Russian navy when it broke down and had to return to port for repairs during a September 2014 deployment meant to show the world that Russia was strong again. Photo via wikipedia

Now that hope is up in the air as France had until November 15, 2014 to deliver the first completed vessel to Russia. Four hundred Russian sailors have been aboard the ship, named the Vladivostok, for months training to take delivery but now France, under pressure from the World, says that it will not complete the delivery given Russia’s renewed military effort in the Ukraine. Russia is keen to keep the sale going as the four vessels could each land a battalion of Russian Marines anywhere on the globe. Russia will likely go to court and get awarded large damages, maybe even in excess of the $1.6 billion contract, but that still leaves Russia without its four mini-carriers that would have been the show piece of their navy. The French government has been silent on whether blueprints for the vessels have been delivered to Russia which might enable them to build them on their own.

So this leaves France with two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that it doesn’t need. The first vessel of the purchase, the Vladivostok, is complete and ready for service. The second vessel, the Sevastopol, has just been floated out of its dry dock for outfitting. Canada has expressed interest in buying the two ships which it would likely get at a significant discount as France mitigates some of its losses. Other potential buyers could be Australia which has been building its amphibious capabilities in response to the increased rhetoric from China. Poland has remained silent on if they would be interested, but India is focusing on building its own indigenous designs and is an unlikely destination now. France will likely try to find a quick solution as it is now responsible for docking fees and maintenance costs on the two Mistral-class ships since it is the breaching party.

Russia will fight in court to keep their Mistral-class ships as they represent an entire new generation of vessels when compared to their existing platforms. In this image, the guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60), left, escorts the Russian amphibious ship RFS Kaliningrad (LSTM 102) during a joint exercise during 2012. Most of Russia’s amphibious assault ships resemble technology that was developed during World War II, an image that Russia wants to change with the introduction of the Mistral-class. U.S. navy photo

Both of Russia’s Mistral-class ships will likely end up in a NATO friendly country but there is a curve ball that could be thrown into this fiasco. The French courts could always take up the Russian plea and order the French government to deliver the vessels in accordance with the contract, arms embargo be damned. An even worse case scenario would be for France to sell the ships at a discount to a third party and then be ordered by the courts to perform on the contract and have to pay to build two more vessels. While that option would cause a lot of heartache within the French government, it would make for a very happy ship builder.

An Evolutionary Dead End, Flying Aircraft Carriers

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has requested proposals for the creation of an airborne delivery platform for launching and recovering drones. You can read the details here, but the BLUF of the article is that the Pentagon is looking for ways to convert platforms such as the B-52 Stratofortress, B-1b Lancer or cargo aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster to carry drones into a combat zone, deploy them, and then recover the drones in air before returning to an out of theater airfield for maintenance. It’s a valiant concept as reducing the drones travel time would increase loiter time and ability to search for targets. As history shows though, this will be the third time the pentagon has looked into creating a “flying aircraft carrier.”

A Boeing X-47 stealth drone passing CVN-77 USS George H.W. Bush during flight tests. DARPA is looking into ways of launching and recovering drones using airborne platforms. The media has quickly pegged this as the military looking to create a “Flying Aircraft Carrier.” U.S. Navy Photo

Before you start thinking about something from the Avengers movie, the first attempt by the United States to develop a flying aircraft carrier was the airships USS Akron and USS Macon. Back in the 1930s, these two dirigibles were the largest in existence and built by Goodyear with the help of German engineers from the Zeppelin Corporation. Both the USS Akron and the USS Macon were built with a hanger for holding Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighters and an intricate trapeze system for launching and recovering the fighters. The idea was for the Sparrowhawk fighters to protect the airships as they conducted bombing raids deep into enemy territory. The idea was never put to the test though as both the USS Akron and Macon were destroyed in accidents by 1935.

The USS Macon conducting air operations. The small Sparrowhawk fighters underneath the airship provides a scale for just how large the USS Macon and USS Akron were. The small scaffolding under the USS Macon is the trapeze system that was used for capturing the fighter and then raising it into the airships hanger. The process would be reversed for launching aircraft. U.S. Navy Photo

The next attempt to create a flying aircraft carrier was in the early days of the Cold War. The primary U.S. bomber aircraft at the time was the B-36 Peacemaker, which had the ability to fly around the world but almost no capability for defending itself if confronted by fighters. This resulted in a variety of “parasite” fighters being developed. These small jet fighters would be stored in the bomber’s bomb bay and then deployed and recovered via a trapeze system similar to that used on the airships USS Akron and Macon. The program showed promise but the rapid development of more capable bombers and more efficient electronic countermeasures made the program unnecessary. Once Intercontinental ballistic missiles became the mainstay of the U.S. nuclear force, any need for a flying aircraft carrier vanished.

An XF-85 Goblin Parasite fighter attached to the trapeze system that would launch and recover the aircraft from the bomb bay of a B-36 Peacemaker bomber. By the time the system became practical the B-36 Peacemaker was obsolete and fighter aircraft became supersonic wonders that outclassed the smaller parasites in every way. U.S. Air Force Photo via National Museum of the Air Force

Of the three potential platforms for a modern drone carrier, the B-52 is the most likely candidate as it is currently being used to launch the experimental X-43 scramjet and has numerous hardpoints for carrying and launching cruise missiles. In theory, each of these hardpoints could become a launching and recovery point for a drone. The B-52 also has the necessary loiter time to remain on station while the drones carry out their mission. The B-1b bomber might do the job just as well but there are a limited number of B-1b’s available and to remove even one from regular service would reduce the Air Force’s strategic nuclear deterrence force. A cargo plane is also unlikely given the current demand on the strategic lift assets of the United States to supply the continuing operations in Iraq and the Middle East.

The possibility of an actual platform being developed though is limited given the current atmosphere of sequestration. If history is any example of how this scenario will play out, drone technology will continue to develop and by the time a flying aircraft carrier is practical, drones will be advanced enough that they will not need a mother ship to support them. Still, the idea is fun to think about and makes for a great backdrop on superhero movies.

Salvaging the USS Oklahoma BB-37 at Pearl Harbor

The sinking of the USS Oklahoma BB-37 at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 is one of the most dramatic moments of the Japanese attack but also the prelude of one of the most ambitious marine salvage operations ever undertaken to raise the ship. You can read the details of the USS Oklahoma’s sinking here, but the BLUF is that on the morning of December 7, 1941, the USS Oklahoma BB-37 absorbed as many as 16 Japanese torpedoes before capsizing and sinking along battleship row at Pearl Harbor. After the initial rescue operation was complete, the U.S. Navy was faced with the daunting problem of salvaging the battle fleet and returning all of the sunken battleships to action.

The USS Oklahoma BB-37 after completion of her 1929 modernization and looking much how she would at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy prioritized which ships would be salvaged based upon the complexity of recovering the ship and the amount of repairs needed to get the ship back into action. The USS Oklahoma BB-37 was prioritized second to last in the recovery schedule, with only the retired battleship turned target ship, USS Utah, given a lower priority for salvage. The problem with the USS Oklahoma was that her superstructure had impacted the seafloor of battleship row and then been pressed down into the mud as the Oklahoma took on water and sank. This necessitated cutting away most of the USS Oklahoma BB-37’s superstructure to free the ship before she could be rolled over.

The USS Oklahoma BB-37 sits capsized in the immediate aftermath of the December 7, 1941 attack with the USS Maryland’s superstructure visible behind her. As the ship took on water, the weight of the USS Oklahoma pushed her superstructure deep into the harbor floor. The view of the USS Maryland’s superstructure in the background helps to show just how much material was holding the Oklahoma in place. This required extensive dive work by U.S. Navy divers to cut away the Oklahoma’s superstructure before salvage work could commence. U.S. Navy Photo

U.S. Navy divers spent the last half of 1942 cutting away the Oklahoma’s superstructure and creating hardpoints on the ship to attach salvage lines. While the Navy divers worked, engineers built a complex system of winches on Ford Island. By March 1943, all of the preparations were made and the U.S. Navy began the slow process of pulling the ship back onto her keel. It was unknown at the time whether the Oklahoma would roll as was hoped or if the effort of winching the ship would only pull the USS Oklahoma BB-37 deeper into the mud. A large berm was built along the Oklahoma’s hull to keep her from sliding and the winches were started. Over the course of a month, engineers watched the winches to ensure that the pressure remained equal across the entire system and rolled The USS Oklahoma back over.

A system of shore based winches on Ford Island connected to the hull of the USS Oklahoma BB-37 was used to slowly roll the ship back onto her keel over the course of several months. U.S. Navy Photo

Even though the USS Oklahoma BB-37 was right side up again, it took from June 1943 to November 1943 to lightened the ship and then finally refloat her. It would take until late December 1943 before the U.S. Navy was satisfied that the USS Oklahoma was stable enough to be towed across Pearl Harbor to a dry dock for repairs. The initial hope of the Navy was to repair the USS Oklahoma BB-37 and return her to combat duty. Once the USS Oklahoma was in dry dock, the U.S. Navy realized that the entire port hull had been wrecked. The extent of the damage and the fact that an entire new generation of battleships was available made the USS Oklahoma redundant and unneeded as the war was already headed toward completion.

The USS Oklahoma BB-37 is almost back on her keel after months of careful winching. It would take almost five months to re-float the ship and almost another two months after that to make the ship ready to be moved to a dry dock. U.S. Navy Photo

Instead of being repaired and returned to duty, the USS Oklahoma BB-37 was given temporary repairs to make her structurally sound and spent the rest of the war awaiting her fate. The salvage of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex marine salvage operation ever undertaken until the raising of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy in 2014. The salvage of the mega cruise liner used the same recovery system to roll the ship over that had been developed for the USS Oklahoma during World War II. If the Oklahoma had been returned to duty, it is likely that she would have looked much like her sister ship, the USS Nevada BB-36, after she was repaired, modernized, and returned to service.

The USS Oklahoma BB-37’s sister ship,USS Nevada BB-36, after being salvaged and modernized. Note that her aft tripod mast has been removed and her secondary armament of hull mounted 5-inch guns has been replaced by dual purpose double 5-inch gun turrets mounted on the deck and superstructure. An extensive anti-aircraft armament has been added. U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy sold the USS Oklahoma BB-37 for scrapping in 1946 for what would have been an inglorious end to a storied ship. The Oklahoma was taken under tow and pulled out of Pearl Harbor with little fanfare as Pearl Harbor still bore the scars of the Japanese attack five years earlier. There was little historical symbolism associated with the ship at the time but it would grow over the coming decades. But the Oklahoma’s story didn’t end there, while in route to the shipbreakers, the USS Oklahoma slipped her tow line during a storm. Despite several attempts by the tug to grab the ship, the USS Oklahoma BB-37 disappeared into the rising seas and met death on her own terms, ending the most expensive salvage operation in U.S. Navy History and closing a chapter of Pearl Harbor history.

The salvaged hull of the USS Oklahoma BB-37 is moored inside of the Iowa-class battleship USS Wisconsin BB-64 at Pearl Harbor in 1944. Though the USS Oklahoma had been a first-rate battleship in 1941, by 1944 she was obsolete compared to the new generation of fast battleships. U.S. Navy Photo

Resurrected, the Return of Naval Air Station Alameda

The defunct Naval Air Station Alameda located on San Francisco Bay is being returned to active duty in a way. You can read the article here, but the BLUF is that the Navy has transferred over 624 acres of the base to the Department of Veterans affairs to build a new state of the art Veterans Hospital and create the nation’s newest national cemetery. NAS Alameda has been sitting virtually abandoned since it was closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closure program in 1997. It had been uncertain what would be done with the land, but various parties jockeyed to be in position to develop the base in what could have been one of the largest real estate deals in California history.

Three super carriers including the USS Enterprise (far left identified by the big “E” on the conning tower), the USS Carl Vinson, and an unidentified Nimitz class carrier sit docked at Naval Air Station Alameda in 1990. National Archives Photo

Alameda Point as the land is known was originally developed as the home base for the China Clipper flying boat back in the 1930’s. Soon after, the land was gifted by the city of Alameda to the U.S. Navy for the development of a Naval Air Station. During World War II, a massive building program brought multiple runways to the base and extensive port facilities. NAS Alameda became an important base on the West coast as it could play host to multiple carrier battle groups at once. But as the base grew, so did the surrounding community and the base was locked in by development. It didn’t matter which way the Navy pilots took off or came into land, they had to fly over large areas of urban development to get to the base.

An aerial photo showing how much the surrounding communities have built-up around Naval Air Station Alameda. Across the bay is the city of San Francisco and behind it lies the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo via wikipedia.

NAS Alameda was a sitting duck for BRAC as the development around the base limited its military function and there was no room for growth. Despite opposition from the local community, which depended on the base as part of its economy, NAS Alameda was shut down in 1997 and has remained vacant since. The City of Alameda has floated various plans to redevelop the land but redevelopment was halted by the need to decontaminate the site after decades of military use. The bulk of the land is now considered ready for redevelopment or for restoration to wetlands but competing interests in what should be done has prevented anything from happening. What is known for sure is that Alameda Point represents several thousand waterfront acres in one of the most expensive real estate markets in America.

An excavator cutting through a runway on NAS Alameda and removing contaminated soil beneath it. On any military installation, you can expect for there to be large concentrations of fuel, trichlorethylene, and lead that will need to be cleaned up before the land is suitable for redevelopment. BRAC Photo

Despite being closed, NAS Alameda has been busy in movies and television. If you have ever watched the television show Mythbusters, the abandoned airfield where they wreck cars is NAS Alameda. In the movie, The Matrix Reloaded, Morphius can be seen fighting atop a speeding semi-truck as it races around NAS Alameda’s runways which were disguised as highways. It seems that these film companies will have to find a new location to shoot though as groundbreaking on the $210 million dollar Hospital project is sure to limit their activities. For thousands of service members that called Naval Air Station Alameda home over the years, they can now be assured that at least a part of the base will return to military duty.